Outward sign of an inward grace

The title of this blog is a phrase I hear used at times in reference to the sacraments of the church–that they are an outward sign of an inward grace. But I’d like to look at them another way today…

What we do–how we act–is also an outward sign of our inner beliefs. That’s how people see us…and know whether to believe our words or not. If our words and actions are the same, that sends one message; if they’re not, then people get mixed messages–and they’re far more likely to believe our actions than our words. It’s like an expression my minister father used to use in his sermons: “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

So…if my words say I’m a follower of Jesus, are my actions an outward sign of that? I hope so, although because I’m not perfect, I know I make mistakes.

But what did Jesus say? and who did he spend his time with? He spent his time with the marginalized…with those who were seen as “less than”…with those who were open to hear his words, regardless of ethnic background, gender, social status…

And what did he say?

  • Love your neighbor.
  • Feed the poor.
  • Visit those who are in prison.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Be peacemakers.

When I look around today and both hear and watch some of those who are either religious leaders or who call themselves followers of this Carpenter, I get very mixed messages. Words and actions don’t match–and I find myself returning to my father’s statement: “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

I hope my words and actions match. I try…and try again, because I believe that my actions are an outward sign of my inner beliefs.

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…to be reconciled to each other

I’ve been thinking about the word “reconciliation” for several days now…pondering how it might apply to the climate we find ourselves in.

How do we reconcile to each other?

It’s not easy.

But I think it’s imperative…and for those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus, it’s a commandment.

So what is it?

While there are different definitions, the one I’m thinking about is “the restoration of friendly relations.” The origins of the word trace back to a couple of Latin words meaning “bring back together.”

It certainly doesn’t take much looking around for us to see the need for reconciliation…in our families…our churches…our society.

But who is going to take the first step? and what is that first step?

We can’t reconcile with each other unless we are willing to acknowledge the division between us. That doesn’t mean placing blame…doing that doesn’t get us any closer to reconciliation. In fact, it may make the division even deeper.

When South Africa ended apartheid, it would have been easy to say “Okay, we’ve ended it. Now everything is fine and dandy.” But the divisions were too deep. Instead, they went through a difficult process of acknowledging the division…of allowing and encouraging individuals to acknowledge their own role in that division…and only then was is possible for reconciliation to take place.

Was it easy? No. Did it accomplish everything hoped for? Again, no. But it began a process.

In American, there are so many divisions. They cross every spectrum you can think of, and they are not helped by the language we hear far too often today.

Where do we start? By being willing to listen to each other, even if what we hear is difficult or is something we don’t agree with.

Each of us has our own perspective on what is going on around us. I may not agree with yours–but you live your life according to that perspective. Unless I am willing to truly listen to what you believe is happening, I am not willing to reconcile. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with your perspective…but if I want you to hear what I am saying, then I have to listen to you as well.

I may want someone else to make the first move, but that can only continue to lead to a standoff.

Jesus said that if I bring a gift to church and remember that my brother (or sister) has something against me, then I should put my gift down and make the first move to be reconciled. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Easy? No.

I like to hold on to my “rightness”…and this challenges me. I might still be right, but this calls me to take the first step.

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.–Desmond Tutu

In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.–Nelson Mandela

May we have the courage to truly reconcile with each other.

 

Can we talk?

I was challenged in a post on Facebook to begin a respectful dialogue about gun control and safety. I am willing to try just that. But first, a little background about me so you know where I am coming from.

As a young person, I enjoyed target shooting at my grandparents’ farm with a BB gun. But I have never owned a gun—nor wanted to. I do not want a gun in my home.

However, I have friends and family who carry, and I respect their right to do so. Some do it for self-protection, others for hunting. I have eaten some of the meat obtained by hunting, and I enjoy it. So I am not averse to guns being used that way.

I also have family and friends who have served in the military, and I respect their service. I have lost a grandson who was a Marine who died shortly after coming back from Iraq. It was not a gun-related death, but what he experienced in Iraq was—I believe—involved in the depression leading to a poor choice that led to his death.

I also acknowledge that there is a lot about guns that I do not know. Again, because I do not want to own a gun, I’ve not felt the need to learn all the ins and outs.

I’m also aware that regardless of what we do, there are going to be individuals who are going to find ways to get weapons. We’re not going to be able to stop that completely. But that does mean that we shouldn’t try?

So…having said that, I do have some questions that I’d like to pose to try to start a dialogue. These are serious questions—ones I think could be a basis for bipartisan discussion about what I see as common sense changes that could be made. If you are willing, I’d really like to hear your responses.

  1. When is the right time to have a discussion about gun policy? It seems that whenever there is a shooting, there is a cry that that is not the appropriate time…that the focus should be on the victims and their families. I don’t disagree with that—but as time passes, when a discussion is suggested, there always seems to be another reason as to why the time is inappropriate.
  2. What can we do to prevent the mentally ill from purchasing guns? (And a corollary to that—how do we get more help for those who are mentally ill?)
  3. Should we bar gun purchases by people on federal no-fly or watch lists?
  4. Why shouldn’t we require background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows?
  5. We require training and education before a person can drive a car. Shouldn’t we do the same thing before a person can carry a gun?
  6. Why shouldn’t we require a permit (which, I would assume, would involve training) before allowing concealed carry?
  7. If we’re going to try to solve at least some aspects of gun violence, why is the government not permitted to gather information on shootings? Isn’t this a serious health crisis?

There are other questions I have as well—questions that I know I would disagree with family and friends about. But I hope that these six could at least begin a discussion. Far too many children have lost their lives to accidental shootings…far too many families have lost loved ones to mass shootings. I don’t want to wake up to the news of yet another one.

The need to listen…

There’s been an awful lot going on this last month…and sometimes it’s left me feeling discouraged.

  • Hurricanes leaving incredible devastation in their wake…and what feels like an inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the needs of the people who have lost everything and who must be wondering just where do you even start to recover…
  • Earthquake in Mexico…again leaving devastation and sorrow in its wake…
  • The protests against injustice and inequality…
  • Listening to incredibly painful stories of members of the LGBTQ+ community…

And yet…there is something to be learned–and hope to be found.

Recently I was at a weekend focused on history of faith communities that come out of the same heritage mine does. For many, many years, the various faith communities refused to talk to each other. We talked AT each other and we spent much of our time pointing out the differences between us and how we were right. More recently, though, we have talked and worked together–and that has been a blessing. We are still aware of our differences both in understanding our history and in our theologies…but we have found that there are many ways in which we can work together to make a difference.

Responders to natural disasters also at times need silence so that they can listen…listen to hear voices calling for help.

And as I watch the protests against justice and inequality–and listen to the responses about those protests–and listened to the stories of young (and older) people who have experienced incredible pain and sometimes severe trauma as they have struggled to be true to who they are…I have learned much.

It requires us to listen. Not just to listen–but also to hear. And sometimes that requires us to be silent.

I’ve just finished reading a book I’d highly recomment–On Living by Kerry Egan. She’s a hospice chaplain, and the book contains stories shared from her experience–both personal experience she had after the birth of her first child as well as stories her patients have encouraged her to share. I’m a minister in my faith tradition–and this quote from her book really spoke to me:

“When we dismiss an experience as “not real,” what we are actually rejecting is the person’s attempt at making meaning of the experience. That’s a cruel thing to do. Attempting to find or make meaning is perhaps the central task of the spiritual life.”

So what does that have to do with the issues I pointed out above? I think it has a lot.

We can get so caught up in all the horror of the natural disasters that we don’t really hear the cries for help.

We can have such a visceral emotional response to a protest that we are unable (or unwilling) to hear the pain that causes the protest.

What if we asked instead this question: “What does that [action…fear…event] mean to you?” And then, what if we really listened to the question? Really listened…

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” —Roy T. Bennett in The Light in the Heart

Carefully taught…

I’m sitting here, listening to the quiet noises of my grandchildren as they take their naps…and it seems so far removed from the events of this weekend. And yet…

There are a couple of pictures I’ve seen as a result of this weekend that have really touched me because of what they say about us. Neither is from this weekend–the first from 1992 and the second from an earlier rally in July 2017. But I think they say a lot about us and the challenges we face.

Many years ago I learned/realized that Rodgers and Hammerstein always put a “teaching song” in their musicals. Never in a way that distracted from the story, but always–somewhere–a song that challenged current thinking. I fell in love with the musical South Pacific…and ached with Lieutenant Cable as he struggled with his love for Liat, a young Tonkinese woman…as well as Nellie’s struggle with accepting Emile DeBecque’s children by a Polynesian mother. The musical–premiered in 1949–had to have been a challenge for those who saw it. After all, we had just come out of a war waged against racism/hatred/genocide, and yet we were still struggling with our own home-grown racism. I wonder what it would have been like to have heard these words for the first time in that context?

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

The other picture that touched me is one from an earlier KKK rally in Charlottesville (in July).  I wonder what was going through the mind of the policeman standing there, quietly protecting the rights of the individuals protesting behind him–people who, if they had their way, would either gladly force him to leave the USA or kill him. He stood there quietly, listening to hate, and yet protecting those who hated him and what he stands for.

I also watched a video documentary made by HBO on the weekend. A link to it is below. Elle Reeve embedded for some of the time with one of the white supremacist leaders–I can’t imagine how she must have felt by the time the weekend was over. It’s not a long documentary–nor does it sugar coat that some of the counter protestors were also violent. But to listen to the language–the words used towards those who disagreed with the white supremacy beliefs and perspectives…it’s chilling. These people do not represent the America I believe in. But where did they get it from? Where were they taught it?

Children are not born hating others. They have to be carefully taught. But if they can be taught to hate, they can also be taught to love…and that is the task that lies before us. It will not be easy…and we will find ourselves disagreeing at times. But unless we can learn the power of love, we face a bleak future.

Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.–Mohandas Gandhi

We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.–William Gladstone (1809-1898)

Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.–Martin Luther King, Jr.

The way of peace is the way of love. Love is the greatest power on earth. It conquers all things.–Peace Pilgrim

The basis of world peace is the teaching which runs through almost all the great religions of the world. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”–Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Which way is up??

A couple of weeks ago I had one of the most frightening times of my life. We were taking a couple days vacation at a beautiful resort with an indoor/outdoor swimming pool. At one side of the indoor pool there was a large water slide, which ended in a shallow (3′) section of the pool.

We’d been watching a couple of young girls go down the slide, having a great time…and we decided to try it ourselves before we went back to our room. We climbed the steps to the top…and my slight queasiness should have been a red flag for me. But I ignored it, deciding that I wasn’t going to let my timidity hold me back.

While there wasn’t anything to hold onto while getting yourself in place, it wasn’t that hard to get ready to go down. My last thought before letting go was that it might be fun to keep my eyes open until just going in–to see what was going on.

But…

As soon as I let go and started down the slide, I felt completely out of control! I know I screamed most of the way down…banging into the sides and going much faster than I had ever anticipated.

I did manage to close my mouth before landing in the water, although I did get some water forced up my nose–not unexpected.

What I didn’t expect was the complete disorientation I felt. I did not know which way was up.

The water wasn’t that deep, so it should not have been difficult to stand up. But it was. I kept kicking, but never felt bottom…couldn’t tell if I was going up or down. I finally hit my head–fortunately lightly–on the edge of the pool, so was able to grasp that edge and stand up…choking and gasping.

Some folks sitting at the edge of the pool had been about ready to come in after me because they sensed that I was flailing…not in fun.

I have never been so scared in my life…so disoriented…so unsure of where I was.

While that was a physical disorientation and scare, I’m finding it also a good metaphor for what I am feeling in other ways. As I read the news…as I see posts on Facebook…I wonder which way is up? I hear and see words being used that I thought we (as a country) had left behind years ago. I hear and see comments about those who are “different” that marginalize them and indicate that they are somehow not of as much worth. I hear casual talk about bombs…about going to war…and I fear.

Which way is up??

Welcome the stranger…

Last night I sat in on a wonderful evening of story-telling from members of (and about) my faith tradition. Some of the stories were funny…some were more somber.

My faith tradition was birthed in the United States, but it did not have an easy birth or childhood. We were “different”…we challenged the status quo…and we became refugees. We were driven from place to place, and our founder was ultimately murdered. In many ways, it’s a wonder that we survived.

But the story that caught my attention last night was of one of those times of wandering. We were forcibly driven out of our homes in winter. We lost most of our earthly possessions–and many families did not know where their fathers were…or even if they were still alive. The journey was a difficult one. Sometimes we were able to find shelter–even if it was dirty and smelly; sometimes we were denied even that. Ultimately we found people who cared…people who saw us not as “other” but as human beings in need. We found a city of 1500 who were willing to take in 5000 refugees who had nothing. We found a temporary home while we regrouped so that we could go on.

As I listened to that story, I thought about the parallels with today…with my parents’ generation and my own.

In the 1930s there were people fleeing and looking for a place of shelter. They were people who had lost everything and who were afraid for their lives–and the lives of their children. Some found shelter, but many did not and perished.

Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Today there are many fleeing and looking for safe places for themselves and their children. Some have found shelter–but many are still looking.

Yes, they are “other”…they are different.

But I am part of a country that has grown from the contributions of immigrants and refugees. I am part of a faith tradition that was welcomed as refugees. I am also part of a bigger faith tradition whose story includes both being welcomed as a stranger–and then being challenged to do the same to others. My people were welcomed…and I grew up believing this poem by Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)